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For over 40 years, Gesamtkünstler Charlemagne Palestine has been making all kinds of art. The now-Belgian living legend, notorious for his stuffed animals which he considers divinities, isn’t easing it up yet. Together with pianist Seppe Gebruers, he’ll be performing at the Bijloke. What to expect? One scientist, a crazy shaman and four tuned pianos covered with plush toys. Prior to the gig, we swapped Earth for CharleWorld for a few hours.
Interview by Dennis Meersman
Photos by Herlinde Raeman, shot in Brussels
Charlemagne Palestine was part of the avant-garde and underground art scene of the 60’s and 70’s in New York. Still heavily active and now living in Brussels, he is renowned for his legendary performances with installations, music and video art. Currently, M HKA is showing one of his works, hhheiligggkkkarrrousellldddommm, as part of their permanent collection.
Seppe Gebruers is a young Belgian improvisation pianist and composer trained in jazz and classical music. He is part of Troika, a collective of like-minded improvisers, who release albums and organize shows.
Where are we now?
What grabs your attention the most in this huge place, Seppe?
Charlemagne: The carillon!
Seppe: Yeah, the carillon. [laughs]
Charlemagne: That’s how we met.
How did it go from there?
C: Seppe invited me to Ghent and introduced me to some nice people from the Bijloke. They were interested in doing something with multiple pianos. Since I have quite a few of them, four pianos will go to the Bijloke for a duet. There will be two guys and four pianos.
Were you a fan of Charlemagne’s work?
S: Before the carillon thing I had never listened to his music and didn’t know his work. But when I listened to it, I figured that we’re both working with elements such as resonance, overtones and microtonality. Although the interpretation is totally different, I discovered the partner I’d always been looking for.
C: We call it a clash of styles! Of course we come from different generations and disciplines. So it has been an interesting clash that will have its first airing on the 6th of April.
I love it when sound has movement
Seppe, you started performing at the young age of 12.
S: I was more jazz based when I was a kid. I played solo and in a trio. But after a while I wanted to get away of that. I don’t like the idea of a team, each playing solos and then waiting for applause after your virtuoso tricks. I fled from that when I was 16 or 17. I started studying a lot of classical piano and contemporary classical music. And now I merge it all together with improvisation or with little concepts. But I’m a little bit out of the jazz world.
You’ll be playing differently tuned pianos at the Bijloke?
S: I play microtonally tuned pianos, which are tuned in quarter-tones instead of semitones. The difference is that it can change your idea of tonality. In musical harmony we speak about a tonal center that means that all tones have a relation to a specific notes, called tonic. But with quarter-tone harmonies, it’s different. After a while, the tonic can change more smoothly. It’s like a slight modulation. I love it when sound has movement.
We bring back these wiggle waggles that are made when pianos are tuned microtonally. The monsters are back
C: I play out-of-tune pianos. I like this sense of age. I think of detuned instruments as another way of hearing and using them. There’s one scientist and one crazy shaman, each one having different techniques in different tunings. We’ll see how that works.
What’s wrong with pianos in regular tuning?
C: The traditional tuning system was developed so that all the strange beatings that tones can do would disappear. We bring back these wiggle waggles that are made when pianos are tuned microtonally. The monsters are back.
S: Some people say it’s out of tune because it’s not in tune with a well-tempered tuned piano. But it’s artificial because it doesn’t have anything to do with sound and the beauty of the beating.
Do you have other projects running now, Charlemagne?
You’re considered a pioneer in minimal music with the likes of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
C: I became allergic to the word early on. I used the word ‘trance music’. Minimal started as a term for visual works of art, not the music. It was only later that the word started to bleed into everything. That word also came afterwards and got plastered onto everything. The term is limiting in its definition.
You prefer the term ‘maximalist’.
C: Well certainly maximalist is a nicer word. It’s like wearing a jacket that’s a little bigger. It gives me room to do anything while minimal gives me very little room. I used that word about 20 years ago and people were almost offended by my attack on minimal. Now even Philip Glass uses it. I heard him say: ‘You know I’m not really a minimalist, I’m more a maximalist.’ [laughs] It was true all this time. He is a maximalist, like all of us. But these terms are almost like racism. You’re pegged as a race or national identity, and in the arts as a certain point of view or a school. And I hate that.
Your oeuvre is very extensive. Is there a work that’s most important to you?
C: There isn’t, that’s not the way I see life. The most important day in my life is now. The most important time in my life is with you, actually, doing this interview! [laughs] Because here we are.
Ear to the Ground #3 with Charlemagne Palestine & Seppe Gebruers on 6 April at de Bijloke in Ghent is free for members.
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